Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Camilla Hildegarde Wedgwood (1901–1955)

by David Wetherell

This article was published:

Camilla Wedgwood, 1944

Camilla Wedgwood, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 064435

Camilla Hildegarde Wedgwood (1901-1955), anthropologist and educationist, was born on 25 March 1901 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, fifth of seven children of Josiah Clement Wedgwood, a naval architect, and his wife Ethel Kate, daughter of Charles (Lord) Bowen, a lord of appeal in ordinary. Descended from Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), the master potter, the Wedgwood and Darwin families were intertwined; Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gwen Raverat, and C. V. Wedgwood were cousins. Josiah Clement fought in the Boer War then spent some years in South Africa; Camilla passed her early childhood with her maternal grandmother at Halsteads in the Lake District and, after 1906, with her parents at The Ark, Moddershall, near the family kilns in Staffordshire.

Aided by her famous name and the financial stability that flowed from the sale of Wedgwood pottery, Camilla was free to express her inherited independence, strong social conscience and streak of individualism. After attending the Orme Girls' School, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, she followed her two brothers to Bedales School in Hampshire. At the age of 17 she entered Bedford College for Women, University of London. Here, she developed lifelong interests in debating and drama, Icelandic studies and Old Norse, and early English sagas such as Beowulf. Her rugged, independent bearing, as well as her sympathy for 'primitive' peoples, earned her the sobriquet of 'The Ancient Briton'.

Her parents separated in 1914 and divorced five years later; her mother migrated to Switzerland with her two youngest daughters. Camilla and the four elder children were thrown closer together. In 1920 she followed her mother's example and attended Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied anthropology under W. E. Armstrong and A. C. Haddon. She passed with first-class honours the English tripos in 1922 and the anthropology tripos in 1924 but the university did not award degrees to women until 1948. At Newnham she held the Arthur Hugh Clough (1923) and Bathurst (1924) scholarships, and qualified as M.A. in 1927. She joined the Society of Friends in 1925 and taught (1926-27) at Bedford College.

In 1928 Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown appointed Wedgwood temporary lecturer in anthropology at the University of Sydney, to replace Bernard Deacon, who had died at Malekula, New Hebrides. Instead of pursuing her own research, she accepted the self-effacing task of editing Raymond Firth's Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori (London, 1929) and Deacon's Malekula (London, l934). Wedgwood lectured (1930) at the University of Capetown, South Africa, and was assistant lecturer (1931-32) under Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was a fellow (1924) and council-member (1931-32) of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Granted a fellowship by the Australian National Research Council, Wedgwood was encouraged by Professor A. P. Elkin and Firth to carry out field-work. In 1932-34 she studied the lives of women and children on Manam, a volcanic island of 4000 inhabitants off the northern coast of New Guinea. She investigated methods of reviving native arts and crafts on Nauru in 1935.

In her publications Wedgwood took a Durkheimian view of religion and warfare as fortifying social cohesion, an emphasis she inherited through Malinowski. Adopting her own version of the 'participant-observation' method of field-work, she immersed herself in social activity on Manam, to such effect that Manam women recollected twenty years later: 'she knew how to plant taro. She dug the hole. She cooked the taro just as we do. She cut away the scrub with a bush knife as we do. If a man died she sat in the middle with all the other women and grieved for him. She was not like white people, she was just like us black-skinned folk'. It was clear from her research on Manam and Nauru that she saw a subordinate role for women in marriage and the wider society as part of the natural order. This was in spite of her own unmarried independence and the personal singularity which reflected her fine intellect.

A member of the early cohort of women field-workers who included Audrey Richards, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, Wedgwood established her scholarly reputation with her Manam research. The publishers of her monumental edition of Malekula had been threatened with litigation because, faced with Deacon's disorderly notes, she unwittingly ascribed material in her text to him instead of to the anthropologist John Layard. By the mid-1930s she had been passed over for tenured positions both in Sydney and at the L.S.E.

In June 1935 Miss Wedgwood was appointed principal of Women's College within the University of Sydney. During a distinguished eight years in the post she stressed the importance of interaction between the college and the university (she herself was honorary lecturer in anthropology) and cultural links with the older universities in Britain. She presided over the construction in 1937 of the (S. J.) Williams wing, providing accommodation for fourteen additional students and paid for out of housekeeping savings, and the remodelling in 1938 of the kitchens and staff quarters. Despite her commanding manner, 'she could mix with her students informally without any loss of dignity'. Although she was best known for her involvement in their dramatic productions and her love of poetry, her students were impressed by her skill as a public speaker and her 'complete disregard for the conventions of fashion'. Her deep, confident voice and gracious manners gave an impression of the serenity sometimes possessed by English county families with an unquestioning acceptance of their own worth.

Wedgwood's Fabian and Quaker social conscience led her to accept many responsibilities. From 1937 she was secretary of the German Emergency Fellowship Committee, which included Max Lemberg and Sydney Morris. She pleaded the cause of Jewish and non-Aryan Christian victims of Nazi persecution before (Sir) John McEwen, minister for the interior. In close contact with her father, she raised money for refugee passages to Australia, but confided to her sister Helen that she felt like 'a mouse nibbling at a mountain'. She publicly protested against the treatment of the internees in the Dunera and the refugees in the Strouma which sank in the Black Sea.

As a college principal and daughter of a well-known British Labour politician (raised to the peerage in 1942), Wedgwood was a public figure in Sydney, prominent in charitable causes as well as a member of the strongly pacifist Sydney Meeting of Quakers. Among other organizations, she was involved with the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children, the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, the Australian Federation of University Women and the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In her social reformist interests as a member of the Australian Student Christian Movement, she retained her Quaker concerns. Increasingly drawn to Anglicanism, she was much influenced by C. S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers; in December 1943 she acted in May Hollinworth's production of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Her attraction to Anglicanism was closely linked with her understanding of visible symbols and rituals as the binding elements of any society. The solemnity of the Anglo-Catholic feast day opened a new world to her, accustomed as she was to the simplicity of the Quaker meeting. As a disciple of Malinowski, she well understood that the vehicle of authentic religious experience lay in the rites and spells, artefacts and ceremonial feasting of most societies. Early in 1944 she renounced the unqualified pacifism of the Sydney Meeting of Quakers and became an Anglican.

On 11 January 1944 Wedgwood was commissioned acting lieutenant colonel, Australian Army Medical Women's Service. Serving as a research officer (anthropology) in Alf Conlon's Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs), she developed policies for postwar educational reconstruction in Papua and New Guinea where she served intermittently in 1944-45. She had a strong dash of egalitarianism. On army bivouacs, when offered a cigarette by her young cadets her reply was: 'No thanks, I roll my own'.

From January 1945 Wedgwood was an outstandingly popular lecturer at the Land Headquarters School of Civil Affairs, Duntroon, Canberra, and, following her demobilization on 16 January 1946, at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, Mosman, Sydney. Her greatest written accomplishments were her pioneering surveys of mission schools in Papua and New Guinea (1944-47), compiled as a prelude to establishing a government education scheme. In England for family reasons in 1947-48, she taught at the Institute of Education, University of London. Back in Sydney, she was senior lecturer in native administration at A.S.O.P.A.

'Behind her apparent self-confidence', Elkin found her 'somewhat retiring and lonely'. She kept in close touch by correspondence with her distant family, especially her sister Helen, and relied on old Sydney friends Theresa Britton and her family, Clare Stevenson and Stella James. Camilla Wedgwood died of cancer on 17 May 1955 at Royal North Shore Hospital, St Leonards, and was cremated. A girls' secondary school at Goroka in the New Guinea Highlands and a memorial lecture in Port Moresby were named after her; her friend James McAuley dedicated to her his poem 'Winter Nightfall'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. V. Hole and A. H. Treweeke, The History of the Women's College Within the University of Sydney (Syd, 1953)
  • D. Wetherell and C. Carr-Gregg, Camilla (Syd, 1990), and for bibliography
  • South Pacific, 8, no 6, July 1955, p 110
  • Oceania, 26, no 3, Mar 1956, p 172.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Wetherell, 'Wedgwood, Camilla Hildegarde (1901–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Camilla Wedgwood, 1944

Camilla Wedgwood, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 064435

Life Summary [details]


25 March, 1901
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England


17 May, 1955 (aged 54)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations